a thousand petals, a thousand paths

A hundred days is a construction of time predicated by man in his attempt to order a universe which may or may not have any order to it whatsoever. A hundred days is a “length” of “time” that is many things to many people. To a gravid woman, it is, roughly, a trimester, where she feels the life burgeoning within her. To a newly hired employee, it is a trial period of work, where both parties consider compatibility. To a man held captive by light years and a technology that he can barely name, let alone understand, it is a stark eternity.

The first couple of nights home, he would sit up in bed, in a sweat, and would poke at his mattress, reminding himself that he was home, with running water and varnished hard-wood floors, and not sleeping on rough-hewn planks with a thick homespun blanket wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He would sit, cuddled over a pillow clutched to his stomach, and practice the breathing Teal’c had taught him. In, slowly, hold it, then out, slowly, feeling the air tickle his lungs, rush coolly in through his throat, and then out in a hot exhalation of the fears and panic that threatened to choke him.

Tonight was no different. It had been a week since he’d come home – home, oh, the word had never seemed so sweet, like a ripe berry on the tongue, pungent with tartness and sugar and renewed flavor. He was home, where he understood the stars, and the sidewalks, and washing machines and McDonald’s Big Mac. Where he understood people.

He hated this. He hated being awake at two in the morning, especially if he’d been asleep only moments ago. The darkness seemed lonelier to him if he was coming to it from a deep slumber. If he was there, awake, from the beginning of the night, it was different, he welcomed the tiny hours and their silent company. But now, when lights were out, when even the trees slept outside his window, he felt desolate.

So what did he do?

He sought comfort. It was never really a conscious decision on his part as to where he would go. He would simply kick off his damp sheets, stand, put on a dry t-shirt, even change his boxer shorts, as they invariably clung to his hips like a wet paper towel, put on jeans and his boots. Then he would shrug into his leather jacket, scoop up his keys, and get in his truck, letting muscle memory take him where he needed to go.

The phrase “held captive” has as many facets to it as the Hope Diamond. To some, it is the stunning intensity of a lover’s eyes, and the inability to tear the gaze away for a lifetime of exchanged emotions. To others, it is the tangible restraint of ropes and guns and knives and the bitter fear that every second might be the last. To him, for him, there had been no ropes, no knives, only the certain fear, the gut-wrenching, searing terror that every second would cascade into a minute, a minute into an hour, an hour into a lifetime under a sun and in a woman’s arms, arms that wound about him tighter than any ropes.

So he couldn’t talk to Carter, not for the first couple of days. He knew it hurt her, and her certainly didn’t mean to hurt her, but he’d had enough of women for the moment. Sad commentary. He loved women. Loved their company, loved their sex, loved their minds. He might not always understand them, but he loved them.

So what did he do?

He sought the comfort where he knew best to find it, where he never had to second-guess himself, where he could make his cynical comments and be assured that they fell into a quiet well of understanding that threw back no ripples of confusion.

Tonight was no different. Most likely Daniel had been expecting him, for the apartment door was ajar, and the light was on in the living room. Jack pushed open the door and stepped inside, halloo-ing softly.

“Kitchen,” Daniel called.

“Ah,” Jack said, coming into the room and leaning against the wooden island. “Coffee?”

“Was there any doubt?” Daniel asked, handing Jack a mug.

Jack didn’t answer for a moment, intent on picking out a tiny fleck of grounds from the side of his mug.

“Same dream?” Daniel asked, resting his own hip against the island and sucking greedily at his coffee. His glasses fogged slightly in the steam rising from the cup.

“Yeah,” Jack grunted, and took his mug out into the living room to stand in front of the sliding glass doors. Daniel followed him out and peered through the glass with him, seeing cityscape and a smattering of lights like tiny jewels. Jack didn’t move for a long minute, then said, “Think I should see a shrink about this?”

Daniel considered this. “Well,” he said slowly, “do you think you should?”

Jack rolled his eyes and turned his back on the dark city line. “That’s a non-answer answer if I’ve ever heard one,” he complained.

Daniel’s mouth tightened and he moved into the living room. “Jack, look, you haven’t even told me what you’re dreaming about. So, sure, see a shrink, maybe they’ll give you some good drugs to help you sleep. Or a lollipop. Who knows.”

Jack’s eyebrows rose as he followed Daniel to the couch. “Testy, are we?”

Daniel merely grunted and propped his feet up on the wooden coffee table. “Maybe,” he said. Then he rubbed the bridge of his nose under his glasses and sighed. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “It’s these translations I’ve been working on. Whoever wrote these texts must have been a moron afflicted with a rather bad case of palsy. I need a decoder ring,” he moaned.

“You are a decoder ring,” Jack said smugly.

“Ha, ha,” Daniel said, finishing his coffee and rising to his feet in the same motion. For a brief and fleeting moment, Jack was distracted by the shape of Daniel’s hips through his worn blue sweatpants. “Want more?”

Jack gave him one of his patented “are you nuts?” looks. “I still don’t understand how you can sleep with all the coffee you drink,” he commented, listening to Daniel’s bare feet pad across the hardwood floors. “You know, I just figured out what to get you for Christmas. One of those hats with the beer cans and the straws, but instead of beer, you can put coffee in the holders and suck caffeine all day.”

The idea was so amusing, yet at the same time, so outrageous, that Daniel didn’t know whether to laugh or flip Jack a sharp comeback. He compromised and found himself halfway between a choke and a cough, and pounded on his own chest to clear his airways. “Jack, I really hate you sometimes,” he said, coming back to the living room and leaning on the back of the couch. Jack’s head was close by his elbow, but he didn’t turn to look at Daniel when he replied, “It’s just part of my charm.”

“Oh, so that’s what you call it,” Daniel retorted, and smiled. Jack did look at him this time, just for a second, and understanding flowed between them like a warm current. Then Jack turned back to his intent inspection of his own feet propped up on Daniel’s coffee table.

They stayed that way for another long minute, the silence stretching, Jack engrossed with the stitching on his boots, then the slow slide of the numbers in the cable box’s clock, 3:15 tumbling over into 3:16, Daniel staring down into his coffee cup, sometimes glancing at Jack with a sideways look.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Jack finally said, and grabbed Daniel’s forearm, pulling him around the couch. “Sit down, would you? I hate it when you hover.”

Daniel shook from his hand the coffee that had been spilled when Jack hauled him to the front of the couch. Very deliberately, he wiped the back of his hand on the leg of Jack’s jeans, then settled back into the cushions.

Jack sighed heavily. “Her name was Laira,” he said. Daniel knew this part, of course, but held his tongue. This sounded like it might be something memorized, or at least well-worn, and he didn’t want to interrupt Jack’s train of thought, wanted his friend to get through this one without being derailed.

“Her name was Laira,” Jack said again. Daniel, very slowly and gently, put down his coffee cup and turned to give Jack his full attention. His knee touched Jack’s thigh, but neither of them noticed. “She was pretty, in her own way. Very caring. Very loving.” Jack sighed again. “But she … she … ” Jack shook his head and stood, tucking his hands into his front jeans pockets. He looked down at Daniel, momentarily perplexed by the crystalline blue of the archaeologist’s eyes, then shook his head again. “You know what?” he said suddenly. “Never mind.” And he started for the door.

Daniel was a lot faster than even he expected, leaping to his feet and practically throwing himself on the door before Jack could grasp the doorknob. “Oh, no,” he said, putting a hand on Jack’s chest. “You actually said her name. You’re not stopping now.”

Jack glared at him. “Daniel, get out of the way.”

“Jack, you know I’m right. Get back over there and finish this. Maybe then you won’t need a shrink,” he added, sort of hoping it would work as a bribe.

Irritation battled with the desperate need to unburden himself. The need won out, and Jack allowed himself to be led back to the couch. “Turn off the lights,” he said quietly, and Daniel did so at once.

Now all they could see from their seats on the couch was the shimmer of light reflected from the world outside: pallid moonlight, neon glow, the normal, soft shadows of a night that did not want to relinquish itself to the morning, pale reflections glimmering on the dark TV screen, bouncing richly off the polished wood of the coffee table. The salt in Jack’s hair glinted like silver, and Daniel moved to brush a tiny lock back above the tanned forehead. “What did she do, Jack?” he asked softly.

Jack stared into the darkness. “I was so tired,” he said finally. “I was so tired. I went to dig for the Gate, I went to listen for the DHD, I went to hope … and she would come, and stand next to me while I threw rocks around, and she’d tell me that there was no point. She would ask, ‘Why won’t you look forward?’ And she would smile that smile of hers.” Jack shuddered. “Daniel – ” he gasped, and to Daniel’s horror, Jack buried his face in his hands. Thoughtlessly, Daniel put a hand on his friend’s back, rubbing the tight muscles between the shoulder blades. “I felt like she was eating me alive, Daniel,” Jack rasped. “And yet she was always smiling, smiling, so damned chipper, working and cleaning and cooking and talking at me, talking at me! I thought I would go insane. And, then one day …” Jack heaved a shuddering breath. “One day, I couldn’t fight her any more.” Daniel’s hand stilled on Jack’s shoulder. “One day, I actually listened to her. I actually looked at her. With her curly hair, and that big smile.” Another shudder shook Jack’s frame. “And I felt everything slipping away. Slipping away,” he whispered.

Daniel swallowed hard, his hand still on Jack’s shoulder, feeling the heat of his body through the thin cotton t-shirt. But he said nothing, waiting.

“It was almost like I stopped thinking,” Jack continued finally. “It hurt to think. It hurt to hope. So I gave her what she wanted.” He made an inarticulate sound of disgust and rage. “I gave her what she wanted, Daniel! It nearly made me sick, but I took her, and I laid her down, and I thought, if this is what I have to do to keep breathing, then I’ll do it.” Daniel’s hand tightened on Jack’s shoulder, then moved to the nape of his neck, massaging deeply, gently. “But even that, after a while … I didn’t know if I wanted to keep breathing. She was eating me alive. I was dead, Daniel! Do you understand that?” Jack turned to face him in the dark, their knees bumping, Daniel’s hand sliding from Jack’s neck to his left bicep, resting like a butterfly. “I was a dead man, walking around on that planet with that woman attached to me like one of those snake-heads!” Jack flung off Daniel’s hand and stood abruptly, moving back to the sliding doors, his palms pressed against the cool glass. His face was so close to the glass, his reflection was clouded by the fug from his breath.

Then Daniel came to stand behind him, and he placed his own hands on Jack’s shoulders. “But you were never dead to us,” he said softly. A certain tension seemed to ease out of Jack’s body. “What she did … “ Daniel had stop for a moment to gather his thoughts into a more coherent shape. Laira had seemed kind, to him, but what he was hearing was someone who deliberately killed a man’s hope. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d done. “I can’t find the words,” he said helplessly, and felt Jack laugh bitterly.

“You, without words,” Jack muttered, and Daniel felt an answering smile tug at his lips. Then he sobered again.

“She used you, Jack,” he said regretfully, turning Jack around. With Jack to the window, he was all silhouette to Daniel. For Jack, Daniel’s face was a portrait of white and shadow, the normally blue eyes washed to a misty violet by the moonlight.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Jack said, and put his hands on Daniel’s wrists, feeling the bones beneath as delicate as a wren’s. “She wanted a baby.”

Something lurched in Daniel’s stomach, whether at the thought of Jack being used in such a fashion, or at the thought of anyone being used in such a fashion, or both, he wasn’t sure, but he had to fight down a wave of nausea before he could speak. “And?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

Jack shook his head. “I don’t think … “ his voice trailed off.

Daniel blinked. There could have been a Jack Junior? “Yeah,” he said bluntly. “I think you should see a shrink.”

Jack did laugh, then, outright, the sound gusty and pained. “No,” he said, “maybe I don’t.” And he reached out and pulled Daniel to him. With his face on Daniel’s shoulder, his arms wrapped around the other man’s slender waist, he finally let it go. There were few times in his life when he’d actually cried, let alone cried in front of another person, but this was one time where he knew he was safe, that there would be no judgment, that he would not have to keep up the façade of the strong and gung-ho military man devoted to his uniform. Daniel held him tightly, rubbing Jack’s back with his strong hands, his cheek pressed to Jack’s, and felt tears dampening his shirt.

“I don’t want there to be a kid, Daniel,” Jack snuffled, not relinquishing his hold, scaring himself with his honesty as he voiced a fear he hadn’t even consciously acknowledged. “Not another Charlie, not some little alien baby on another planet, not – ”

“There won’t be,” Daniel said softly, stroking Jack’s hair.

“How the hell do you know?” Jack asked testily, pulling his face back to stare Daniel down in the moonlight.

“Jack.” Daniel’s voice was full of exasperation. “Would you please read the reports people give you?” Jack merely looked blank and Daniel sighed heavily. “I didn’t realize the significance of it when I read it, but it all makes sense now … “

“What, Daniel!”

“Laira’s people requested medical supplies, some of them for her, apparently. They only said it was a “woman’s matter,” stupid archaic term, but Fraiser went through to help, just to be sure, and she went with blood packs. Hell, I don’t know, Sam or Janet could give you all the real details, if you really want to hear them. But … I’d bet just about anything that it was a miscarriage.”

All the air went out of Jack’s lungs, and he lacked breath for so long, spots started to swim before his eyes. Then he remembered how to breathe, the air rushing in. He held it, then let it out slowly, releasing the specter that had been looming in his subconscious for days. “I’m a bastard for being glad,” he said softly, and started to turn away again.

“No,” Daniel said, pulling Jack back against him. “You’re human. And you’re really free, now.”

Finally, at long last, after a week of wondering, of worrying, of hating that he had let himself bend, that he had let himself give in, give up, give up on hope, Jack felt it all slip away, like a coat in the summer, felt the darkness fold in around him, soft again, a companion in the wee hours, with Daniel’s arms around him, Daniel’s chin on his shoulder, and the clock behind his friend blinking 3:40 with all the complacency of dumb technology. He felt he could truly breathe again, he could feel his body again, he was connected to his feet, and his hands, and his nose and his tongue, and without thinking, he pressed a kiss into the side of Daniel’s neck.

“Now,” he said, pushing away a little, “I could use some more coffee.”


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